CEDAR FALLS — It’s T.J. Frein’s second time running for an at-large City Council seat, but he’s probably a familiar name to those who follow city government.
Frein, 33, not only attends council meetings regularly, he’s also a frequent speaker at the podium on a variety of topics.
He attributes that to a passion for civics gained in the eighth grade from a teacher who made politics anything but “boring,” Frein said.
“I was just fascinated with it,” Frein said. “I don’t consider it a job or chore to go to those meetings; it’s like, ‘Oh, this is kind of fun.’”
Frein was one of five candidates in a special election last year to fill the at-large vacancy left when Rob Green was elected mayor.
“What makes me want to run is my energy. I want to be involved. I want to help make decisions,” he said.
He didn’t make the runoff election by around 200 votes, behind eventual winner Kelly Dunn, whose he’s now challenging again. Dunn is running for re-election.
The issue the candidates disagree about most is whether to keep Cedar Falls’ combined Public Safety Department, or transition back to separate police and fire departments.
Frein, who grew up in Waterloo and is an 11-year veteran of the Waterloo Police Department, has held several jobs on the force except, he said, “sitting behind a desk.” He currently works patrol, and said he’s spoken to several public safety officers at Cedar Falls.
“It’s just a different mindset between a fireman and a police officer,” Frein said. “When tragedy strikes, you need to have both — and I don’t think you can master both.”
He disagrees with the city’s contention it would need to spend an extra $2 million per year to unwind the combined department. He said he believes the city came to that number by doubling its current force of around 70 PSOs to 140, which he said wouldn’t need to happen in a city of Cedar Falls’ size.
“The city has never had those numbers; they’re never going to have those numbers,” he said. “That’s the misleading part of it all.”
Instead, Frein would first target management positions he said actually cost the city the most money, including the director of public safety. He also contended the combined department was a way to gut the police and fire union positions.
“Council said it’s not union busting, (but) it’s absolutely what it was,” Frein said. “I get frustrated thinking about it. My heart bleeds for them.”
Frein also noted he would be in favor of “looking at the necessity” of the city administrator’s position, though he said he doesn’t personally have a problem with City Administrator Ron Gaines.
“We don’t need two full-timers,” both a mayor and city administrator, Frein said. “I think the citizens want a dedicated, full-time mayor.”
He’s broadly in favor of the city’s visioning plans for downtown and College Hill, but he would prefer council convince businesses to reinvest in their properties through tax incentives, as well as get the University of Northern Iowa on record with specific action items to support the plan, particularly related to increasing parking.
“The plan is great,” Frein said. “College Hill is in desperate need of something.”
But he disagrees with allowing fewer parking stalls per residential unit.
“To me, it doesn’t make any sense to go to half a stall per bedroom because some people don’t own cars,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said it wouldn’t affect an overall vote on the plans.
“Parking is a concern — it’s always going to be,” Frein said. “But as a whole, to see the potential of what this could look like start to finish was appealing to me.”
He’s also concerned the city’s newly created Racial Equity Task Force was formed “without a goal” and could be folded into the city’s Human Rights Commission if that commission was given a bigger budget. He noted the commission’s current budget of $1,500 works out to around “53 cents annually per racial minority,” according to his math.
“If you want to reach someone, you’ve gotta have more than 53 cents,” he said, saying the council needs to raise the budget, perhaps to $10,000. “Either you didn’t know and didn’t read $1,500 in the budget, or it’s not really as important to you as you say it is.”
Though he’s a resident of the Greenhill Road area, Frein said he’s worried residents of the North Cedar area seem to be left out of resources and growth.
“I think we’re forgetting about the north part of town as a council and as a city,” he said. He believes it “desperately needs some kind of development,” both residential as well as commercial.
On his candidate Facebook page, T.J. Frein for Cedar Falls, Frein said if elected he would donate “at a minimum” 10% of his $6,435 council salary “to various nonprofit organizations in the city.” He would “eliminate the hurdle of paid parking” in the downtown and College Hill areas, and would have a “citizen first” philosophy, which he said in an interview meant prioritizing residents over city staff or consultants.
“We constantly hear, ‘Oh, we get emails from these people about things, but they’re not really the experts.’ I can’t disagree more with that,” Frein said.
This story was updated June 11 to reflect the exact pay for council members.